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Hidden sources

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Increasing production demands have seen many architectural firms look to outsourcing to supplement their own skills Outsourcing conjures up images of Far Eastern sweatshops, Bombay call centres, 'downsized' staff, and the thin end of the wedge. And outsourcing architecture? Yet that is precisely what is happening in architecture right now and it seems to be working.

It has come about partly because some practices have been participating in an upturn in work, partly to do with the speed with which modern construction contracts often have to start, and partly to do with some practices' difficulty in finding experienced staff. If you can outsource the production of drawings and be reasonably confident that the quality is going to be OK, it enables you to smooth out the current cycle of hiring and firing architectural staff as your workload fluctuates.

Various forms of local outsourcing have been around quietly for some time. Bigger practices often hand out work to young struggling practices.

Simon Allford of AHMM says that his practice uses people who have left and set up as consultants or practices: '? people we know and like - but never for working drawings'.

Avery Associates' Brian Avery points out that architects regularly outsource specialist services such as model making, presentation images and animations. He says: 'It's a question of what skills you are tapping into via outsourcing. For example, there is a company in China that does illustration work on the other side of the world while you sleep.' And, of course, architects outsource for specialist skills such as cladding, fire, even specification - and, if you want to be historical, engineering and quantity surveying.

As Avery points out, outsourcing drawing work 'is not much different from the bigger US or European practices working here'. Neither Allford nor Avery is opposed to more extensive outsourcing but both have the expectable worry about losing control.

Many practices are coy about outsourcing work abroad. They fear that clients will be prejudiced against them for not doing everything inhouse and in Britain - and they worry that it could suggest that they were inadequately resourced. Maybe that is a real fear, maybe not. But it makes it difficult to even guess at the amount of work currently outsourced to drafting offices in India, and architectural offices with spare capacity in South Africa.

One new operation with its drawing production team based in Vietnam is Atlas Industries, which has as UK operations director former Halpern director Andrew Kay. Atlas started up in 1999 with its eye mainly on structural engineering, drawing outsourcing and computer development plus a bit of architecture.

Today about 80 per cent of its £5 million-and-rapidly-growing activity is in providing architectural outsourcing via a project office in Ho Chi Minh City.

Far from home 'No, it's not a tin shed in a rice field with a telephone line, ' Kay says, but the sixth floor of a recently completed and rather good office building.

That is a fact checked out early by one Atlas client, the small Bristol practice Willmore Iles. Andrew Iles, who had been worried about sweatshops, says: 'We did some investigation into working practices through family contacts in Vietnam.'

It was what it said it was. The 100 or so staff include 20 structural engineers and some computer programmers, with about 55 qualified and experienced architects - there are two well-regarded architecture schools in the city. This is no well-appointed sweatshop, because they are paid salaries in the upper quartile for local professional employees. Kay says: 'We wouldn't get good people otherwise.'

Professional staff are paid a lot less than in the West but, as Kay points out, the costs include expat supervisors located in Vietnam, the costs of Kay's own regular visits and the lean UK office infrastructure. He says:

'The overheads are much higher than in a UK office. But you are saving on labour charges.'

In the end, he reckons that the cost is between a half and two-thirds that of doing the work here. This is borne out by one client and reckoned to be a tad optimistic by another, who thinks the cost is about the same. On the other hand, Atlas has tended to be asked in, so far, to help with resourcing rather than because it is especially cheap. Kay says:

'Nobody is using us to cut costs.'

Everybody discounts any fear that cheap foreign architects will eventually drive out local talent - the real advantage is in helping to cope with sudden heavy workloads.

How it works Once the scope of the work is established precisely, Kay offers a lump-sum figure. He says: 'It's virtually impossible to make money on production drawings; you underresource and have problems with the builder, or you over-resource and make no profit. So you want to peg the production costs.' Andrew Iles says:

'One of the most attractive things is that they amend work for no additional fee. OK, so the scope is defined beforehand. But for us fees haven't been a point of discussion.'

When the fee and the scope of the work is agreed, Kay's people start work on establishing the programme and briefing the staff and supervisors in Ho Chi Minh City. Kay or one of the regional liaison people will probably go out to start the project off. All the material is digitised and transmitted by email through a secure server based on the east coast of the US and managed by a program called Synapse developed in-house by a Vietnamese programmer. Thereafter the project proceeds rather as if the production drawings were being done in, say, another part of the client practice's city with weekly progress meetings - on a big job there will involve at least a daily phone conversation. On complex projects, Kay encourages practices to send out senior architects to Ho Chi Minh City to get to know the people involved and explain the special requirements of the job. The drawings are checked both before they leave Vietnam and as they come in.

In practice This was more or less the procedure followed by Willmore Iles. Andrew Iles explains: 'We were a small practice which had got planning permission for a site for a client and the programme would have been difficult to achieve without outsourcing. Atlas was recommended by a consulting engineer on a job. To be honest, it was driven by us not getting very many suitable responses to job advertisements although we had a lot from overseas.'

Kay's people worked from the architect's drawings. Part of the task involved an externally insulated precast concrete system, which was strictly for northern Europe. Iles bombarded Vietnam with details and technical literature. He says: 'You can make an assessment from contact with the Vietnamese staff, get a feeling for it being OK. So we did talk directly to Vietnam from time to time but communicated by email and faxes, and that was the area which most improved. It was essential that it happened. Quality control of the drawings is a separate issue from the recording of information, because you aren't really shouting to your colleagues in the next room.'

Iles thinks the service Atlas offered is particularly suited to general-arrangement drawings. And on the next occasion he would 'probably limit the scope of their involvement'.

In fact, the practice has used Atlas on a subsequent scheme with more limited scope, in which Willmore Iles did all the detailing and Atlas did the general-arrangement schemes.

Iles says: 'It works well as long as you have sufficient time for checking.We did have issues when we were pushing them on tight deadlines. It was sticky at times but it in many ways it was the same as working in a large office. What it did was to allow us to take on a big project - and it allowed us to expand the practice to almost double its size.'

Broad scope and long term Lloyd Stratton of ACP is a current Atlas client.He says: 'It's making use of worldwide resources. What we have always found is that when jobs come to an end we have difficulty in laying off staff. In the UK it's difficult to recruit quality staff. The thing that attracted us to this method of working was that you have a resource which you can switch on when you need it and switch off when you don't.

'In real life clients give you the goahead and then a lot of time is wasted in deciding to proceed.And when they do, they want the work yesterday and we are asked to produce the material in next to no time. So it means we are asked to resource up at a moment's notice. And we turn to Atlas.

'We started the outsourcing exercise tentatively and used them to do the production information for a £5 million project. It was a pilot and it worked quite well. We then secured three large projects with a combined value of £100m. It stretched us - and Atlas. But it would have been very difficult to resource these projects if we had to do it through job advertising and the agencies, ' Stratton adds.

There have been teething problems on this second collaboration to do with people and with checking. Kay says: 'To work effectively the whole practice has to be committed.You have to parcel out the work effectively and there shouldn't be any tweaking.'

Satisfying the insurers Stratton points out that under its PI his practice has to follow QA checking procedures before the drawings are issued to the contractor. So there has been a phase when the practice has not been happy about the thoroughness of checking at the Ho Chi Minh City end. He explains: 'It is a very time-consuming process - under our QA process we have to check things from printouts [rather than on screen] mark them up in red, scan them and send them back.'

But, Stratton says: 'That is the only problem at the moment - they are hiring more senior staff and taking steps to address the problem. At the moment we hold meetings with Andrew, he takes the problem away and works it out directly with the Vietnamese. He has asked us to send staff out there and I have deployed two senior staff and it seems to have been successful. If it has worked I will send team leaders out to speak directly with their people. The problem with that is that they are out of the office for a week. And some people have family commitments and don't like going.

'It is early days to say that it is cheaper. The costs are probably marginally higher, largely because there are some inefficiencies to do with the learning curve. Some people take to it very well, other staff find it very difficult. There is a lot of passive communication in the office to do with walking into a studio and looking at the work on-screen. You can't do that by email.

Looking forward, it is clear that we will have to invest in video conferencing.'

You would be surprised if everything had gone perfectly smoothly but, as Stratton says: 'It's a long-term relationship. The teething problems were born out of the fact that we probably overloaded them. Anyway, we are evolving a new way of working. So we are taking a longer-term view and are building a knowledge base. Maybe other practices will be using what we have built up but we are looking forward to working there because there is significant benefit, especially in these times of short notice.'

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